Jeremy Corbyn's suggestion that empty properties in Kensington should be "requisitioned if necessary" to re-house the victims of the Grenfell Tower disaster figures into a complex history of housing in London. Despite the supremacy of London's housing market there have been moments of resistance, when autonomous political action opened up a new relationship to housing.
This isn't the first time the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (formerly the Metropolitan Borough of Kensington) has been haunted by the spectre of people living where they are not supposed to live. The Second World War produced a glut of homeless veterans in the UK, and led to an "unprecedented" wave of squatting across England and especially in London, as Alexander Vasudevan documents in his book The Autonomous City. Many luxury flats and homes were occupied, notably the empty Duchess of Bedford House in South Kensington.
In 1946, the "Great Sunday Squat" in Kensington, as it was known, was organised by the Communist Party and facilitated by the Women's Voluntary Service. So many impoverished families from precarious housing conditions turned up that the "Communist stewards were forced to scour the neighbourhood for additional housing", with eight other empty buildings being taken over. The phenomenon was eventually clamped down on by central government, which sought to criminalise squatting as a result.
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The next wave of organised squatting was in the late 1960s and the 1970s, taking root in Notting Hill, Fulham and the rest of London. Just five minutes from Grenfell Tower is Freston Road, where a squatters' co-operative in the late 1970s took over a row of derelict houses owned by the Greater London Council and declared the "free independent republic of Frestonia" – creating a site that would later be managed by the Notting Hill Housing Trust. However, most squatters found themselves struggling against belligerent councils, whether Conservative or Labour, which sought to block deals with squatters negotiating for legal status and divide them between the deserving and undeserving.
There is no neat continuity between London's history of grassroots alternative housing and Corbyn's startling call for the requisition of private property for displaced residents. We should also be weary of the way Kensington's predominance of "foreign-owned" properties confers a sort of xenophobic legitimacy on the relatively moderate Labour MPs who have backed Corbyn's suggestion. But what connects Corbyn's idea with the history of squatting is the way they open up new ways of thinking about housing.
The state taking over empty mansions is unlikely to be followed through, with many former residents probably being holed up in extortionate B&Bs. It wasn't the point Corbyn made most forcefully, but it signals a desire on his part to take housing out of commodity circulation. If the government can provide safe and secure homes without bowing to the free market in this exceptional case, what can it do in general?
Such proposals force us to de-naturalise the free market system regulating the supply and availability of housing, and a system of council provision which has the structure and character of private business. Already one fellow at the Institute of Economic Affairs, a free market think-tank, has gazed down the slippery road of Corbyn's logic and seen the abyss: "Next it'll be 'Why should houses lie empty whilst homeless people sleep on the streets or in shelters?' Let's requisition them!" he tweeted. To which several hundred replied: "Sounds like a good idea."